China's Canals & Coal to Provide Water & Energy for Over a Billion People in an Industrializing Nation

Editor’s Note: Using very rough numbers, during 2003, human civilization consumed roughly 400 quadrillion BTU’s of energy (affectionately known as “quads” among economists and the like) and they consumed roughly 3,500 cubic kilometers of water. If you define the nations of the “Global North” as all nations where the average GNP per capita is over $15,000 US, you would have found, in the late nineties, 26 countries numbering 781 million persons. These wealthier nations comprised 14% of the world’s population and they consumed over half of the world’s total energy production and about one-quarter of the world’s water withdrawals.

Table Comparing Water and Energy Use in China and the United States
In the late ’90′s Americans used, on average, 12 times as much energy and 4 times
as much water per person, compared to the Chinese during the same period.

What if China, which alone numbers 1.2 billion citizens, were to join the 781 million people in the Global North? It is certainly plausible that soon another 1.2 billion people in the nations of the “Global South” will attain the lifestyle of the wealthier more economically developed nations, whether or not they live in China.

Using China, however, as an example of the results of projecting her imminent energy and water needs this way are sobering. For each of China’s 1.2 billion inhabitants to consume as much energy and water as someone in America or Western Europe and a few other places, her energy production and water usage would have to increase by 800 percent and 250 percent, respectively. Eight times as many power plants and 2.5 times as many reservoirs and canals. Taking comparisons one step further, if in the late-nineties each Chinese person were to consume as much energy and water as Americans, they would have consumed 12 times as much energy per person, and four times as much water. China will have to build as many power plants and water diversion projects as they possibly can if they wish to develop their economy to the level of the major industrialized nations, and that is exactly what they are doing.

Hopefully China will take the chance to leapfrog the nations that have already attained high per capita wealth, insofar as she can build today’s high-tech cars that don’t pollute, and develop today’s clean sources of energy generation, and harmonious water withdrawals. Hopefully China’s quality of life and standard of living, by leveraging today’s advanced technology as she goes to the next stage of industrialization, will be just as high as can be, but using far less resources and creating far less pollution.

- Ed “Redwood” Ring

China now ranks second globally to

the United States in installed electricity capacity (338 gigawatts in 2000) but its use of electricity is just 38 percent of the world’s average. If by 2050 its population peaks at 1.6 billion and per capita energy use reaches the world average, it will be adding the generating capacity of Canada every four years.

China currently burns more than a
billion tonnes of coal a year
to produce 75 percent of its energy. Even the most optimistic assumptions foresee coal consumption growing by about 5 percent a year. The country has unveiled ambitious plans to cut its reliance on coal to about 55 percent of its energy needs. By 2030 coal is expected to provide 62 percent, oil 18 percent, natural gas 8 percent, hydropower 9 percent, and nuclear power 3 percent of China’s energy consumption. By 2050, Chinese planners believe coal consumption should be down to 35 percent of consumption, with oil and natural gas accounting for 40-50 percent and primary energy sources such as nuclear, hydro, solar and wind power accounting for 15-20 percent.

Yangtzee River in China
The Mighty Yangtzee River
An Ancient Highway Into China’s Heartland

To attain that hydropower goal, and to deliver water to parts of China that are now suffering badly from the effects of centuries of mismanagement of the environment…

China has embarked on its biggest water-diversion plan ever.

On August 14, Premier Wen Jiabao announced that work on the eastern and central canals of a south-north water-diversion project are to start this year.

These canals would carry water from the Three Gorges Dam hundreds of kilometers away.
One of the most important parts of the project is reducing water pollution in northern China, bringing water from the south to what is now a virtual desert. If the project fails, China might well have to move its capital from Beijing, which sits in the middle of a desert. Wen was quoted by the official Xinhua News Agency as saying that plans are being made to protect the water from pollution along the diversion.

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The Three Gorges Dam and
the Fate of China’s Yangtze
River and Its People

Eight projects are soon to be initiated, including a canal from Shijiazhuang in Hebei province to Tuancheng Lake in Beijing, the reinforcement of the dam of Danjiangkou Reservoir, a tunnel under the Yellow River, which is now dry 1,000km from its mouth, and construction of sewage-treatment plants in cities along the eastern canal. Wen said that by 2008, 295 water-pollution control projects will have been built along the east canal, one of three south-to-north water-diversion canals running about 1,300km across the eastern, middle and western parts of the country.

Flags of China and Canada
State Environmental
Protection Administration

The State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) acknowledged that water pollution along the east canal is still worrisome. All seven spots that are monitored by SEPA were reported to be polluted in varying degrees. New rules to charge enterprises and residents for disposing of wastewater will also be adopted. On the east canal alone, 24 billion yuan (US$2.9 billion) will be invested in reducing pollution and protecting the environment, one-third of the budget for the canal.

The south-to-north water-diversion project formally started last December and aims to divert 44.8 billion cubic meters of water from the Yangtze to the north, Wen said. Emergency water supply to Beijing, Tianjin and north Hebei province will be a priority of the project, he said.

China is thus choosing between environmental hazard in its waters and environmental hazard in its air. The Worldwatch Institute, an international environmental watchdog, estimates that China is poised to overtake the United States as the world’s largest source of air pollution within 10 years. Less than 20 percent of the 1.4 billion tonnes of coal that China mined in 1996 (when coal output peaked) was washed, so that 23.7 million tonnes of sulfur dioxide was discharged into the air that year.

Map of China
China’s Energy Consumption Is Just Beginning

In 1999, only a third of China’s 338 monitored cities were in compliance with the nation’s ambient-air-quality criteria – which are far lower than international standards. Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi province, where a quarter of the country’s coal is mined, has the worst air-pollution record of any city in the world, with particulate concentrations often seven times World Health Organization (WHO) standards.

World Health Organization Logo
World Health

A World Bank report estimates that air pollution costs the Chinese economy $25 billion a year in health expenditure and lost labor productivity alone. As many as 700,000 premature deaths per year are attributed just to indoor air pollution from burning coal for heating and cooking. Throughout China, respiratory diseases are blamed for a quarter of all early deaths, a figure that has increased by nearly 25 percent over the past decade. Then there are the 10,000 miners who lose their lives each year, largely from coal-face accidents. Moreover, acid rain affects 40 percent of China. In Chongqing, which burns 15 million tonnes of coal each year, acid rain is so severe that bus signs have to be changed every few years. The municipal government says acid rain costs 1.6 billion yuan a year.

Given this story, anything that China does to cut its reliance on coal is to be welcomed. Beijing plans to ban production of coal containing more than 3 percent sulfur by the end of 2005. Moreover, two transcontinental gas pipelines and half a dozen smaller ones are being built that would supply the big cities with clean energy for heating and cooking. In many cities such as Beijing and Taiyuan, people are already installing new gas-fired boilers to replace coal-fired ones. China is also promising to clean up its smokestacks and halve sulfur-dioxide emissions by 2010.

Flag of China
Flag of China

The continuing reliance on old and inefficient industrial technology means that China must burn 50 million tonnes of coal more than a developed country for the same amount of energy. Much of the bill of $46 billion is being footed by Japan, which suffers from Shanxi air pollution. Hitachi is even providing smokestack scrubbers to Shanxi plants. But despite these attempts to clean it up and reduce dependence on it, coal will remain central to fulifilling China’s energy.

By 2030 oil is scheduled to supply 18 percent of China’s needs – making it as important a consumer of Middle Eastern oil as Japan or the United States – yet coal consumption will remain the most pressing issue.

By 2020, China’s coal-fired generating plants will alone be emitting each 10.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, 152,000 tonnes of sulfur dioxide and nearly 500,000 tonnes of dust and fly ash. So, on the face of it, the Three Gorges Dam and all the other hydropower schemes offer big benefits, which contribute 20 percent of China’s electricity consumption from non-polluting energy that is vastly preferable to coal. Even so, the giant dams and reservoirs China is building at such a furious rate remain a poor investment and should be discouraged, because their construction entails big hidden human and environmental costs.

Map of Rivers in China
China intends to build dams and canals to divert hundreds of cubic kilometers of
water per year from the Yangtzee basin to the arid north of their country.

The past 50 years of water conservancy has been achieved at a gigantic cost in human suffering, which is little known even within China. By 1982 China had forcibly evicted 10.2 million people to make way for 70,000 dams and 80,000 reservoirs; even this may be an underestimate. In the past 20 years, an additional 3 million people have moved, bringing the total to 13 million.

Resettlement for dam building is, of course, only one part of a bigger story of forced movement. In the Mao Zedong era, 170 million people were shifted around the country. Soldiers, prisoners, Red Guards or miners were sent into hitherto remote areas such as the forests of Yunnan or the mountains and valleys of former Manchuria. More than 20 million “educated youth” were sent from the cities into the countryside. Another 16 million were sent into the interior to build Mao’s “Third Line”, a military-industrial complex scattered in remote locations to enable his regime to survive a Soviet nuclear attack and invasion.

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Since 1949, 45 million people have been moved to make way for all kinds of infrastructure projects. One consequence of these population movements is a form of colonization. Areas that were once the domain of hunters and herdsmen have been transformed into densely occupied settlements. The Sanjiang Plain in Heilongjiang province, for instance, in the far north was drained to create farmland that now supports 8 million people.

About the Author:
Gordon Feller is the CEO of Urban Age Institute ( During the past twenty years he has authored more than 500 magazine articles, journal articles or newspaper articles on the profound changes underway in politics, economics, and ecology – with a special emphasis on sustainable development. Gordon is the editor of Urban Age Magazine, a unique quarterly which serves as a global resource and which was founded in 1990. He can be reached at and he is available for speaking to your organization about the issues raised in this and his other numerous articles published in EcoWorld.

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